But though there is so little Romanesque architecture in Barcelona, the great buildings of the period all lying in the north, most of the real masterpieces of eleventh- and twelfth-century Catalan fresco painting are in the city and not the country. This paradox is due to the zeal of preservers who in the 1920s began a program of salvaging Romanesque paintings from the rural churches of Old Catalunya - mostly abandoned or falling inexorably into decay - and bringing them to Barcelona, where they hang in the Museum of Catalan Art on Montjuic. When touring in the north, one may feel a sentimental twinge on seeing the walls which once they adorned now either bare or filled with lifeless replicas - but if these frescoes had not been removed and remounted, they would not exist today. As they stand, they are the finest group of “primitive” (pre-Giotto) painted murals in Europe. It is scarcely an exaggeration that this part of the Museum of Catalan Art is to wall painting what Venice and Ravenna are to the art of mosaic.
The artists’ names have not survived, but several of them were painters of real sophistication. Perhaps some of their borrowings were unconscious and came out of the cultural environment - including the relics of Roman occupation, which lay much closer to the surface, both physically and mentally, than they do today. Thus in their art, God and the Virgin are imperial figures; the semicircular opening of the church apse gets used as a kind of Roman triumphal arch.
In any case, the word “primitive” hardly applies to artists who had such a close and even learned grip of the principles of Byzantine style, and it seems unlikely that these murals were painted by locals. More likely the artists traveled from one commission to another, just as troubadours did between the castles of Languedoc and Catalunya, and they were able to bring the style’s intricacies over the Pyrenees (or by sea) to these remote churches.
These images are designed to fix you, to hold you in thrall. It is the art of maximum eye contact, sublimely confrontational: one thinks of the Spanish obsession with the mirada fuerte, the “strong look,” the gaze of power and appropriation, with which Picasso’s work would be saturated eight hundred years later. This reaches an almost crushing pitch of exaltation in the gaze of the Pantocrator from the apse of Sant Climent de Taull, painted in 1123. No expense was spared on the Taull murals - blue, made of lapis lazuli, was the costliest of all pigments, and there is enough here to ransom a shipload of Saracens. But it is his gaze that one remembers. Framed in his mandala, a symbol of celestial power that derived from ancient (but then not so ancient) Roman monumental sculpture, Christ sits on a curved band that represents the sphere of the universe, holding an open book inscribed with the words “Ego sum lux mundi” - “I am the light of the world.” His body is strangely proportioned. The bare feet are small, but the volume and grandeur of the drawing increase as your eye moves upward, reaching a climax in the curled folds of cloth on the god’s gesturing arm and in his face, with the curve of the dome that holds the image, is to make Christ’s whole body lean outward, toward and over you, so that his mirada fuerte cannot have escaped at any point in the small parochial church of Sant Climent. It is a staggeringly direct image of the divine character of omnipresence. But this Christ, unlike Dr. Faustus’s, is as far from anger as he is from pity. His calm is absolute. He is the lawgiver, the direct pictorial descendent - in this land of ancient Roman occupation - of the incontrovertible emperor, lord of the triumphal arch. No wonder that the angels on either side of him seem to be tiptoeing anxiously away instead of holding up the mandala, as they do in other images of the same kind, as though they were only there on sufferance. No figure could compete with this Christ, and the theological existence of God the father is indicated only by a disembodied hand, the same as the hand on the facade of Sant Pau del Camp, pointing out of a circle of white radiance: “This is my Son.”